State Politics

He was popular, then fell from grace. Ex-Mayor Brent Coles says he’s a changed man

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-day series profiling the four most prominent candidates for Boise mayor in the Nov. 5 election.

Before the taxpayer-funded “Oklahoma!” tickets, before the side trips to New York City and the Mormon heritage sites, before the five weeks in jail — most Boise voters quite liked Brent Coles.

After he was appointed as mayor in 1993, Coles easily won re-election twice, even in 2001, just months after police found him outside his press secretary’s house at 4:20 a.m., where he claimed to be delivering newspapers. He later told police he had lied about why he was there. He said he wasn’t there to see her but was visiting a neighborhood he hadn’t been to in a while.

He governed Boise during a time of growth and became known as a consensus builder and advocate for supporting neighborhoods and preserving the Foothills. He was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors for a year and used his national platform to shine a spotlight on Boise.

Coles built his reputation over 10 years as mayor before squandering it when he, his chief of staff, Gary Lyman, and the city human resources director, Tammy Rice, were caught misusing public funds. They pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2003 and went to jail.

That became Boise’s biggest political scandal, because it had been — and remains — one of Boise’s only political scandals.

After he resigned, Coles largely disappeared from public life. This spring, he emerged unexpectedly at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to testify against the city’s proposed rezoning of the Greenbelt around the Boise library.

“It brings back memories of the 1970s when we were tearing down downtown,” he told the commissioners.

In July, he showed up at another public hearing, urging the City Council to spend money not on a new $85 million main library but on new police and fire stations.

He took up the message of the Northwest Boise activists who have pushed back against Mayor David Bieter’s vision for Boise and advocated preservation of their rural neighborhood. Coles went around collecting signatures in the successful drive to put ordinances on the November ballot requiring citywide elections before millions of city dollars are spent on the library or a proposed stadium.

Then, in September, standing alongside his wife Julie under a clouded Boise sky, Coles, 67, surprised the city by announcing his bid for mayor.

coles terteling
Boise City Council President Carolyn Terteling and Mayor Brent Coles listen to a woman during an Oct. 1, 1997 council meeting. Gerry Melendez

Talk of the scandal has dominated the narrative of his campaign. “Disgraced former mayor” invariably accompanied his name in headlines.

Coles says he knew his campaign would be hard. “The thing is getting the message out of what I would do as mayor and overcoming what I did during the last six months of my 10 years as mayor,” he said in an interview with the Statesman.

Coles’ early tenure focused on planning initiatives that would retain the city’s heritage. Coles led the City Council to acquire historic Boise landmarks like the Depot train station and the Cabin Literary Center before developers could reach them. In 2001, he pushed successfully for voters to pass a $10 million levy to finance preservation of Foothills parcels.

He saw that growth also threatened the city’s quality of life. He strongly advocated for more high-density development accompanied by a robust bus system. He helped to consolidate the city’s bus system into a regional transit authority, ValleyRide.

In 1997, he brought in a diesel-fueled train engineered in Germany to run along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks between Boise and Nampa to show the public how a commuter-rail system could work. He budgeted to buy land to build library branches throughout the city and says he added nearly 10 new police officers each year he was in office.

Despite progressive ideas about urban life, Coles, was still a fiscal conservative. A Republican and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he instituted Boise’s first nudity ban, requiring that exotic dancers wear short shorts and halter tops — which was later ruled by a federal judge to be a violation of free speech.

Coles’ name was known beyond Boise, too. As president of a national group of mayors in 2001, Coles attended nationwide conferences and represented city leaders in front of President Bill Clinton during summits at the White House.

“As mayor, you begin to become a celebrity, and you begin to believe it,” Coles said.

It was that national post that led to Coles’ downfall, said Carolyn Terteling-Payne, who took over as mayor after Coles resigned in 2003.

“When he got involved in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he had his sights set elsewhere for a brief period of time,” Terteling-Payne said in a phone interview. “His demise is that he turned a lot over to Gary.”

Former Boise Mayor Brent Coles waits for the court session to start at the Ada County Courthouse in 2003, where he was in court facing misdemeanor charges of bribery and corruption.

Lyman, Coles’ chief of staff, was largely blamed for the scandal that subsequently unfolded.

In 2001, a City Hall parking garage staffer noticed Lyman carrying out computers and DVD players from the office. Soon after, rumors circulated about the purchases that Rice was making on her city-backed procurement card.

The city’s general counsel and even Coles’ spokesman, Todd McKay, warned the mayor that his top aide was trouble — but Coles kept faith in Lyman and refused to fire him.

“He never thought Gary was doing anything wrong,” said longtime friend Scott Spencer, mastermind of the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic. “His major strength is the same stuff that got him in trouble — his loyalty to the people around him.”

In 2002, Coles and Lyman flew to Rochester, New York, for a conference. The morning of Nov. 12, they drove in a city-rented car 30 miles south to the town where Joseph Smith is said to have received the vision that inspired The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They headed back to Rochester to catch the first half of the one-day conference. After the welcome lunch, Coles and Lyman boarded a plane to New York City. There, they attended “Oklahoma!” on Broadway, using tickets that Lyman had purchased with city funds.

An attorney general’s investigation later calculated the total cost of Coles’ and Lyman’s side trip to New York City at $2,323.27.

After the New York City trip came to light, the City Council began scrutinize Coles’ other spending. Audits uncovered that he and Lyman had used city vehicles to go on a multistop joyride to Latter-day Saints landmarks. Coles had also attended the Winter Olympics in 2002 as a gift from Blue Cross, which had won a contract to provide dental insurance to the city.

On Valentine’s Day 2003, the attorney general’s office charged Coles with two misdemeanors for accepting the Olympics tickets. Coles resigned that day. A grand jury indicted him and Lyman on felony fraud charges and misuse of public money. Coles pleaded guilty and was later sentenced to six months in jail. He was released after five weeks, and later a judge dismissed the felony charges.

Many members of the Coles administration who had not faced charges left town. Lyman and Rice did too shortly after their release. But Coles stayed.

“I was determined to stay here with my family and support them,” he said. “I went to work anywhere I could find an opportunity.”

His personal life changed.

“Going shopping, you would have those who would turn and look,” he said. “When you were mayor, maybe they’d want to come over and talk to you. But it changed from being the celebrity to being the fallen person.”

A friend who owned a plumbing contractor business put him to work for a few months. He later went to work in real estate, developing residential subdivisions. Then 2008 hit.

“We had properties optioned up at $100,000 an acre that now had no value,” Coles said. “I lost a lot financially.” In 2011, Idaho levied a tax lien against him for $44,000 in unpaid income taxes.

Coles left real estate and found a job managing loading docks for a custom cabinet company. Although he said the work was “challenging” and a “great experience,” it took a physical toll. In 2017, with the real estate market hot again, he became a real estate agent.

Boise mayoral candidate Brent Coles talks about growth and traffic issues with Northwest Boise resident Malaena Kelson as he walks door-to-door Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 to meet voters. Darin Oswald

In the last 16 years, he’s grown a new sense of empathy for those who are struggling. “I’ve felt that struggle personally. I’ve seen people who are struggling. Whatever I can do personally to be a good neighbor — that’s what I do.”

Coles promises to re-prioritize public safety and neighborhoods and curb the growth in city spending. He plays to citizens concerned about growth, congestion and the loss of what Coles calls “our heritage.”

“All those people who haven’t felt represented in other elections may bother coming out this time,” said Richard Llewellyn, president of the North West Neighborhood Association. “Coles thought the issues were important enough to endure the obvious and predictable revisit of the past.”

Even supporters questioned his decision to run. “We thought he was joking,” said Scott Spencer. “I didn’t think he was serious.”

Coles announced his candidacy on the last day he legally could. By the end of September, he’d just barely put a website together. Bieter and City Council President Lauren McLean have littered front yards with campaign signs — but Coles’ name is absent.

On a Wednesday night in early October, Coles went door to door in Northwest Boise, where he lives. Voters shook his hand and took his brochure. They complained about overcrowded schools and the traffic backed up going north on Glenwood Street.

“What you’re talking about is the need for another river crossing,” Coles told one man. “And you’re exactly right — we’ve actually been having that discussion for 20 years.”

It’s on doorsteps where Coles’ past becomes a benefit. Many of the concerns voters raise today echo the issues he worked on in the past.

Bill Whelan, a resident of six years in Northwest Boise, talks about a recent City Council meeting with Brent Coles, a former mayor of the City of Boise. Coles was walking door-to-door Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019 seeking votes for campaign to become mayor again. Darin Oswald

“He loves the governing part — the nuts and bolts of policy — far more than handshakes and adoration,” Statesman columnist Dan Popkey wrote after Coles’ re-election in 2001. But Coles still has a knack for the handshaking part.

Voters, even the skeptical ones, are still social creatures. As he canvassed, one voter asked him, “Weren’t you mayor before?”

“I was,” Coles said. The voter didn’t press further, and Coles didn’t elaborate.

It takes someone as optimistic as Coles to run for mayor knowing it would dredge up Boise’s collective memory of lost innocence. The first line on his campaign brochure reads: “This campaign is about Boise’s future.” As if to imply: “This campaign is not about my past.”

On front porches, Coles gets a chance to control his story for the first time in 16 years — a man who has not lost his passion for Boise, who is apologetic for the years that he lost — a man asking voters to elect not the Brent Coles of 2003, but the Brent Coles of today.

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Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.